Enjoy millions of ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more, with a free trial

Only $11.99/month after trial. Cancel anytime.

How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour
How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour
How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour
Ebook475 pages7 hours

How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour

Rating: 0 out of 5 stars


Read preview

About this ebook

'A masterful book – a resource that makes anthropology matter’ - Andrea Muehlebach, Professor of Anthropology, University of Bremen

When it comes to labor movements, unionized industrial workers on the factory floor have only ever been part of the picture. Across so many different workplaces, sectors of the economy, and geographical contexts, the question of how working people struggle in the day-to-day has no single answer.

Here Sian Lazar offers a unique anthropological perspective on labor agency that takes in examples from across the globe, from heavy industry and agriculture to the service and informal sectors. She asks: how do people strive to improve their lives and working conditions? How are they constrained and enabled in that struggle by the nature of the work they do, and by their own positionality in local histories, cultures, and networks? 

How We Struggle explores worker action across the spectrum from organized trade unionism to individualized strategies of accommodation, resistance, and escape. The book marries a discussion of global political economy and Marxist feminist theories of labor with ethnographic approaches that begin from a perspective of human experience, kinship, and radical heterogeneity.

PublisherPluto Press
Release dateJan 20, 2023
How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour
Read preview

Sian Lazar

Sian Lazar is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of The Social Life of Politics: Ethics, Kinship and Union Activism in Argentina and editor of Where are the Unions? Workers and Social Movements in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe amongst other books.

Related to How We Struggle

Related ebooks

Related articles

Reviews for How We Struggle

Rating: 0 out of 5 stars
0 ratings

0 ratings0 reviews

What did you think?

Tap to rate

Review must be at least 10 words

    Book preview

    How We Struggle - Sian Lazar


    How We Struggle

    ‘Sian Lazar shows us anthropology at its best. She explores how different capitalist strategies for organising workers’ productivity generate problems that encourage certain solutions that in themselves create more problems, and on and on. Lazar is remarkably imaginative in revealing how, in large and small ways, workers of all stripes can organise to create otherwise, generate new possibilities for resistance and lead more fulfilling lives.’

    —Ilana Gershon, Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University

    ‘Sian Lazar’s new book is as brilliant as it is useful. She manoeuvres lightly among the opposing schools of labour anthropology and shows with worldwide examples that how we struggle for better lives is deeply embedded in the type of relationships in which we labour, care and serve; relationships that are globally produced, intimately lived, and more often than not divisive. How We Struggle is a boon for analysts and activists alike.’

    —Don Kalb, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, author of Expanding Class

    ‘With its fresh analysis of labour agency, How We Struggle is a source of tremendous inspiration and hope. I can’t wait to share it with my students.’

    —Dr Rebecca Prentice, Reader in Anthropology and International Development, University of Sussex

    ‘With ethnographic flair, this book beautifully incorporates a wide range of contemporary contributions to the anthropology of labour, from the workplace to the home and the community, from collective action to individualised strategies of resilience and escape. It provides a highly readable and state-of-the-art analysis of the politics of labour, with a keen eye to gender and migration.’

    —Luisa Steur, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam

    How We Struggle is marvellously expansive and generous in its conceptualisation as it allows us to think broadly about labour agency in a post-Fordist, post-pandemic world. Lazar has written a masterful book – a resource that makes anthropology matter.’

    —Andrea Muehlebach, Professor of Anthropology, University of Bremen

    Anthropology, Culture and Society

    Series Editors:

    Holly High, Deakin University


    Joshua O. Reno, Binghamton University

    Recent titles:

    The Limits to Citizen Power: Participatory Democracy and the Entanglements of the State


    The Heritage Machine: Fetishism and Domination in Maragateria, Spain


    Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling


    Anthropologies of Value


    Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives Third Edition


    Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology Fourth Edition


    What is Anthropology? Second Edition


    Anthropology and Development: Challenges for the Twenty-first Century


    Seeing like a Smuggler: Borders from Below


    Private Oceans: The Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas


    Grassroots Economies: Living with Austerity in Southern Europe


    Caring Cash: Free Money and the Ethics of Solidarity in Kenya


    Rubbish Belongs to the Poor: Hygienic Enclosure and the Waste Commons


    The Rise of Nerd Politics: Digital Activism and Political Change


    Base Encounters: The US Armed Forces in South Korea


    Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First-Century India


    Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru


    When Protest Becomes Crime: Politics and Law in Liberal Democracies


    Race and Ethnicity in Latin America Second Edition



    First published 2023 by Pluto Press

    New Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA

    and Pluto Press Inc.

    1930 Village Center Circle, 3-834, Las Vegas, NV 89134


    Copyright © Sian Lazar 2023

    The right of Sian Lazar to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

    A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

    ISBN 978 0 7453 4751 6 Paperback

    ISBN 978 0 7453 4753 0 PDF

    ISBN 978 0 7453 4754 7 EPUB

    This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully managed and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing processes are expected to conform to the environmental standards of the country of origin.

    Typeset by Stanford DTP Services, Northampton, England

    Simultaneously printed in the United Kingdom and United States of America


    Series Preface



    1Heavy Industry and Post-Fordist Precarities

    2Light Industry: Gender, Migration and Strategies of Resilience

    3Agricultural Labour: Exploitation and Collective Action

    4Affective Labour and the Service Sector: Work as Relations

    5Professional and Managerial Work: Producing Selves and Processes

    6Platform Labour: Digital Management and Fragmented Collectivities

    7Patchwork Living

    8Social Reproduction Labour


    Coda The Covid-19 Pandemic and Labour: Continuities and

    the Potential for Change




    Series Preface

    As people around the world confront the inequality and injustice of new forms of oppression, as well as the impacts of human life on planetary ecosystems, this book series asks what anthropology can contribute to the crises and challenges of the twenty-first century. Our goal is to establish a distinctive anthropological contribution to debates and discussions that are often dominated by politics and economics. What is sorely lacking, and what anthropological methods can provide, is an appreciation of the human condition.

    We publish works that draw inspiration from traditions of ethnographic research and anthropological analysis to address power and social change while keeping the struggles and stories of human beings’ centre stage. We welcome books that set out to make anthropology matter, bringing classic anthropological concerns with exchange, difference, belief, kinship and the material world into engagement with contemporary environmental change, capitalist economy and forms of inequality. We publish work from all traditions of anthropology, combining theoretical debate with empirical evidence to demonstrate the unique contribution anthropology can make to understanding the contemporary world.

    Holly High and Joshua O. Reno


    This book developed out of a lecture series, and so I would like to thank the many students who were test audiences. I am also very grateful to the public sector unionists of Buenos Aires and the street vendors’ associations of El Alto for pointing me down the road of organised labour as a research topic. I would like to thank all the labour activists who struggle for better conditions for their inspiration, and who write about that struggle on Twitter, in newsletters and in the media. I hope I have done them some kind of justice and adequately expressed my admiration for their tenacity.

    As I put together these acknowledgements, I realised that a whole series of workshops and conference panels were inspirational for this book, beginning with the AAA congress in New Orleans in 2010, the workshop on ‘Regular and Precarious Forms of Labour in Modern Industrial Settings’ organised by Chris Hann and Johnny Parry at the Max Planck institute in Halle in 2015; a workshop I organised at Cambridge in 2017 on Labour Politics and Precarity; the meeting of the EASA Anthropology of Labour network in Amsterdam in 2019; the panel on Social Reproduction at EASA 2020, and the 2021 workshop on the Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour in Cambridge. Both of the Cambridge workshops were supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and I am grateful to CRASSH for their financial and especially administrative support. My thanks to the organisers and participants for such stimulating events, all of which have been important sources of inspiration and insight.

    Laura Bear, Deborah James, Don Kalb, Sharryn Kasmir, Geert de Neve, Rebecca Prentice and Andrew Sanchez have all been key sources of support and advice at various points in time. Don read a version of the manuscript and his comments were both encouraging and critical, influencing some key changes. Because this was such an ambitious project, I turned to colleagues to help fill gaps in my knowledge and I am hugely grateful to those who answered my questions and suggested references. I’ve especially noted down Catherine Allerton, Kate Boyer, Charlotte Faircloth, Kathleen Millar, Tom Neumark, Irene Peano, Miranda Shield Johannsen, Dan Souleles and Sofia Ugarte, but I’ve been pestering people over a period of about five years and my recording systems are not great. So, I have probably also forgotten some people, for which I am sorry.

    Ilana Gershon read the entire manuscript incredibly closely. She gave me editorial comments and talked through my arguments with me, and I am amazed at and deeply thankful for her generosity. In my experience it has been rare to get that kind of detailed engagement with work of this length after the PhD and outside of the formal processes of manuscript reading at the publisher. I also thank the editors of this series at Pluto Press for their comments and insight, especially Holly High.

    I want to acknowledge the continuing importance of Olivia Harris in inspiring me and shaping my thinking. I thank my colleagues in Cambridge for the time to think and to write, my students for requiring me to structure my thoughts better, and my friends in the Department of Social Anthropology and Clare College for being such a supportive academic community of care and intellect. Finally, Dave has kept me going on the many occasions when my self-confidence flagged, and Zakk and Milo are wonderful young men who make me proud to be me. Thank you.


    This book is about the day-to-day struggles that contemporary working people engage in to resist oppression or simply strive for something better. It draws on ethnographies of working life to explore the experience of labour and what that means for workers’ political agency, putting that more intimate perspective into the context of how global capitalism has developed in recent decades. In a post-Fordist world, how should we think about labour agency? Using examples from ethnographies conducted all over the world and in multiple workplaces I ask: how do people strive to improve their life and work conditions? How are they constrained and enabled in that struggle by the nature of the work they do, and by their own personal experience and embedding in local histories, cultures, understandings and networks? In asking these questions, I deploy a capacious notion of agency, that includes self-activity in the workplace (which may in turn be appropriated by the employer) as well as resistance and struggle, coupled with life beyond work and in the realms of subsistence and social reproduction.1 This emphasis on holism derives from my anthropological commitment, as does my goal to achieve a radical compassion for what people do to try to make things better for themselves and for those they love. I offer this as an analytical and political contribution to the debate because often theorists on the left only see the most spectacular and oppositional protests at work; or they focus on organisational forms that are novel or ideologically uncompromised. In contrast, anthropology can bring to our attention other aspects of political life and, I argue, make a case for them as equally valid kinds of radical politics, at different scales of life, from personal to collective.

    The Covid-19 pandemic brought the problem of work to the foreground of popular and political attention in unexpected ways. In March 2020, the UK government released its list of key workers who were permitted to send their children to school during the first lockdown. The list included, among others, frontline health and social care staff, teachers and nursery workers, those required to run the justice system, police officers, members of the armed forces, transport workers, utilities workers and those involved in food production and delivery.2 For ten weeks, people stood on UK doorsteps at 8 p.m. on a Thursday to applaud keyworkers in the NHS. Government furlough schemes paid the salaries of people who could not work from home but were not considered key workers. Parents (especially mothers) homeschooled their children and attempted to juggle that with (sometimes) full time work from home. In the early stages of the pandemic, press articles and social media reported the pleas of doctors, nurses and care home workers who had not been provided with enough personal protective equipment. High infection rates in parts of Leicester were thought to be related to garment factories where employers were not observing safety protocols.3 In Norfolk, meat-processing factories saw significant outbreaks, thought to be at least in part associated with working conditions of close proximity to others, lack of ventilation and low temperatures.4 As the vaccine programme rolled out from late 2020, healthcare workers were vaccinated, and some union leaders and politicians began to lobby for teachers to be similarly prioritised,5 although for men at least, the riskiest professions outside of healthcare were security guard, care worker and taxi driver.6 White collar workers considered the relative merits of working from home versus going into the office and wondered how their workplace might change after the pandemic. In short, work was discussed as never before: how we value it, who does what, what do they need to do it safely, where must it happen, how might it change.

    Such debates were of course not unique to the UK. On 30 March 2020, Instacart workers in New York City went on strike to demand protective equipment, hazard pay and sick leave, and on 1 May, workers at Instacart, Amazon, Whole Foods, Walmart, FedEx, Target and Shipt struck for basic health and safety provisions. Ununionised delivery workers struck in ten Brazilian cities in early July.7 Workers protests went beyond purely pandemic-related concerns. In India, nearly a million farmers converged on Delhi in November 2020-January 2021, protesting legislation to liberalise agricultural markets. They succeeded in making the government freeze the implementation of the laws in January, and eventually repeal the legislation in late 2021.8 In November 2020, gig economy unions campaigned to prevent Proposition 22 (‘Prop 22’) passing at the ballot box in California but were defeated by the better-funded campaign run by Uber, Lyft and their allies. Prop 22 was the companies’ response to prior legislation that had required them to classify their drivers as employees, which would have meant enforcing a series of workers’ rights. The companies instead proposed a minimum earnings guarantee and some healthcare provisions but maintained drivers’ status as independent contractors.

    Uber had been appealing a UK employment tribunal judgement on much the same question since 2016, and in February 2021, it lost its final appeal at the UK Supreme Court and was ordered to classify drivers as workers and pay minimum wage and holidays, among other rights. In May 2021, Uber agreed to recognise the GMB union, the first time Uber had recognised a drivers’ union anywhere in the world, albeit with an agreement to collective bargaining on only a very limited range of issues (not including drivers’ earnings). Back in the US, a group of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama led a year-long campaign to achieve union recognition for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), culminating in a vote in March-April 2021. The workers voted against unionisation after a hard-fought campaign by Amazon. In December 2021, despite a similarly tough anti-union campaign from their employer, staff at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, voted in favour of unionising, and established the first labour union at a Starbucks since the 1980s.9 On 1 April 2022, after a nearly two-year-long campaign led by Chris Smalls, who was fired from his job at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island after protesting inadequate Covid safety measures, the independent union he founded (Amazon Labor Union) won a vote for recognition there, becoming the first labour union at Amazon in the US. That same day, Starbucks Workers United won their tenth vote for unionisation since Buffalo, with petitions under way in more than 170 Starbucks stores across the US.10

    Meanwhile, across the world, unions were negotiating health and safety protocols, wage increases, redundancies, job openings and multiple other questions with their employers. Workers who are not members of a union were chatting with each other online, sharing worker IDs or platform profiles and giving advice about how to avoid a bad employer; they were supporting and teaching each other, finding out about new job opportunities and deciding to leave jobs that they didn’t like; they were seeking out ways to combine their job with their caring responsibilities, building solidarities and political power through collective action; solving disputes, seeking amenable clients, getting angry, feeling resigned, getting ill, slowing down, speeding up, and so on. Collectively and individually, despite and because of the pandemic, people tried to make their working conditions better.

    The upsurge of labour mobilisations in 2020–2021 was not actually that new, though. In some form, organised labour has been part of many of the most famous mass mobilisations in recent decades, from indigenous rights and anti-neoliberal protests in Latin America to the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, service delivery protests in South African townships in the 2000s, the Arab Spring and Occupy protests of 2011, and more recently, pro-democracy mobilisations in Chile in 2019. Labour played a crucial role in anti-coup protests in Myanmar in early 2021, and a general strike in Israel/Palestine in May 2021. While scholars from the 1990s to the 2010s bemoaned what they assumed was an irrevocable weakening of trade unionism and saw instead new political subjects rising up – indigenous peoples, the multitude, youth, environmentalists – we forgot that these ‘new’ kinds of mobilisations for democracy, against neoliberalism, or for urban services were also based profoundly in how people live, and that what people do to generate the resources to enable life is central to that fundamental struggle. Not to mention all the less spectacular day to day efforts, negotiations and strategising that working people engage in all the time, both individually and collectively, within and outside of formal trade unions. These struggles are the subject of this book.

    Capitalism and labour: orienting narratives

    While the most distinctively anthropological contribution to how we understand labour agency would be a focus on everyday experience, anthropologists of labour also usually argue that labour processes are embedded in local historical, social and cultural contexts and practices. That claim differentiates anthropology from alternative disciplinary approaches (principally from political economy) that describe labour in more abstract theoretical terms or on a larger scale, as part of global processes of capitalist accumulation and organisation. Anthropologists of capitalism combine the two approaches to varying extents; so, some emphasise the processes of political economy that shape labour in similar ways globally,11 while others resist what they see as an imposition of a singular logic on deeply heterogeneous spaces, lives, understandings and subjectivities.12

    Many contemporary Marxist anthropologists of capitalism put labour or class at the centre of their study and produce deeply textured local histories of labour that both identify local particularities and focus on common processes, such as accumulation through dispossession, extraction of surplus value, class formation, and the antagonism between capital and labour.13 This is both a historical and scalar analytical position: a commitment to historical materialism and to understanding the local context within an interconnected world system. It draws upon a particular tradition of work in anthropology, including scholars such as Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz or Jonathan Friedman. For example, Lesley Gill’s book A Century of Violence in a Red City (2016) describes the interplay of paramilitary, state and corporate violence in the destruction of the organised working class in the city of Barrancabe